Skills development

Developing the skills, knowledge and technical competence of people on farm is central to the farm’s success, regional prosperity and industry sustainability.

Businesses should regard programs for the improvement of individuals as an investment, as:

  • management skills and technical competence are necessary for the business to grow;
  • showing people they are valued by the business boosts morale and motivation;
  • actively promoting the development of people reduces staff turnover and associated costs, workplace accidents and absenteeism;
  • multi-skilling (more than one person who can complete a job on the farm) facilitates a risk management strategy for the farm business.

The benefits for individuals are very direct:

  • helping people perform their job better;
  • improving their job satisfaction, confidence and self-esteem;
  • facilitating promotion;
  • enabling people to move more freely between jobs (transferring their skills within the existing farm business and to new workplaces); and
  • improving their capacity to adapt to change.

The basic steps in putting together a training program for an individual are:

Determine what skills and training are needed

The performance appraisal process is an especially good way of identifying areas for further training that will be of benefit to the individual, relevant to their position, and match the needs of the farm business in the future.

Make use of the position description

The skills that employees need should be found in the position description for the job.

Lines of enquiry to help identify skills gaps and needs are:

  • How does the person contribute to the farm?
  • What do you want them to achieve? What do they want to achieve?
  • Does the person have the appropriate technical skills and knowledge for the tasks ahead? For example, the ability to optimally use pasture and grain when feeding livestock, implementing good mastitis control at milking, business management, machinery maintenance, computing skills etc.
  • Does the person have a qualification that is needed? e.g. a Chemical User’s Certificate.
  • Would development of specific personal skills, attitudes and aptitudes be of benefit? For example, how to be a good team leader, skills in conflict management etc.

It is important to consider both present and future skills when identifying skill gaps. Individuals can enter and leave a career pathway as their learning needs arise or, when they need to learn new skills and knowledge to perform their job. They may also choose to progress through the whole career pathway from Assistant Farmhand, Farmhand, Farm Supervisor, Farm Production Manager to Business Manager (as above).

Using a process that enables individuals to recognise the skills they have and to get a qualification for those skills. It also identifies skill gaps and provides individuals with a training plan to progress along the career pathway or gain the skills.

Don’t neglect training needs

It is sometimes difficult to keep up with the demands of the business and remain effective when people have the same skills they had when they started working on the farm. An owner should never neglect the training needs of the people on their farm. Training doesn’t have to cost a fortune – there are many benefits of informal training on-farm.

Back to top

Design a training program

A training plan is the actions needed to reduce an individual’s skill gaps. This plan should be consistent with the individual’s training needs analysis and meet the objectives of the business. It needs a set of objectives and outcomes and a list of resources, people, and costs to achieve those outcomes.

A simple action plan for training

Joan and Robert have noted that as the farming business has grown, Robert is not able to keep up with all the jobs on the farm and do the business planning needed to ensure their business is sustainable. They have identified from a skills audit that the business needs a strategic plan, something that Robert has not done before. A simple action plan was developed that has a training objective for Robert to complete a unit in Strategic Business Planning. The outcome of this would be a clearer direction for all in the business and the skills to interact effectively with professional advisors. The resources required were enrolment in the unit. It was decided as both Joan and Robert are joint owners of the business, that both should attend. The cost was the course fees and Joan and Robert’s time.

Back to top

Consider the options for training

Ways of learning and developing skills can take many forms: on-farm or participation in extension programs or formal accredited training and courses.

Regardless of the training method, the training program must be valid and relevant to the identified needs. Answering these questions will assist in determining the the most suitable training design:

  • What are the objectives of the training?
  • Who needs to attend the training?
  • Who will design and conduct the training?
  • Will it be on the job, off the job or a combination of both?
  • What outcomes are expected?
  • Where and when will the training be conducted?
  • Are any extra facilities/media required?
On-the-job training

Training on-farm is especially appropriate when:

  • the skill is learnt by seeing and doing;
  • the farm has well-documented procedures on how the task is to be done;
  • there is someone experienced and competent to lead the learning (either from the farm or an external workplace trainer, adviser or consultant); or
  • an individual needs to learn the role of another within the business.

To be successful, on-farm training programs should:

  • have clearly defined outcomes of what skills and knowledge the person is to master;
  • have a patient and technically competent person doing the tutoring;
  • describe ‘why’ things are done (the ‘what’ and ‘how’ are automatically covered in this form of training); for example, why cows need to have a body condition score between 4.5 and 5.5 (on a 1-8 scoring system) at calving, why calves can’t be transported with wet cords etc;
  • over explain rather than under explain: when you know the system it’s easy to make assumptions and underplay the complexity; and
  • incorporate coaching into the process

Tap into your experience for scenarios

Use your experience to identify examples where your staff found it difficult to reach your on-farm standard. These “what if” scenarios should be used in your training activities with staff. For example, think of “what if'”scenarios to explain why things are done in a certain way, such as the safety aspects of the use the race, or the consequences of inserting an intramammary tube that has a bit of dirt on it.

Provide trainees with regular feedback on how they are doing in the various aspects of the task. Provide lots of opportunities in the coming days and weeks to practice the skill so that it becomes entrenched – consider incorporating the new skills in regular duties.


A useful, but often neglected, skills development process that can be used on farm is coaching. It is suited to both on and off-farm training but is probably most relevant on farm.

Coaching is about changing habits to achieve the minimum standards expected on the farm. It involves assisting an individual to take on new ways of doing things or new roles and requires constant feedback between the learner and the coach. The coach’s role is to acknowledge the individual’s existing skills and to motivate them to try something new (learn a new skill or take on a new job in the workplace) or to encourage them to always do their best. Usually coaching encourages an individual to use skills that they already have but have not used.

Extension programs

Field days and discussion groups promoting awareness of information are as much a part of the learning system as more formal education programs.

Some clear advantages are:

  • the discussions and themes are usually highly topical;
  • they provide an opportunity to keep up with state-of-the-art information and technology (especially when facilitated by an expert); and
  • it’s as much about keeping in touch with the social network as information gathering – being able to catch up and discuss things with other farmers.

One of the challenges of this type of learning is how to incorporate the new information into your farming system.

Recognised training organisations (RTO)

Community organisations, TAFE and universities have a wide variety of programs for adults: from industry-specific technical degrees to courses in business planning and risk management, health and safety, computer and literacy skills, special interests etc.

There are many advantages of undertaking training through recognised training organisations:

  • this form of training is part of the formal education systems and is readily recognised by other workplaces;
  • it is readily accessible in most dairying areas; and
  • a good course can be highly motivating.

Matching training needs to people and jobs

Joan and Robert employ three people on their farm. As the business is extremely busy, each person is required to be very flexible and familiar with the business and especially the milk quality standards. For optimum efficiency, Joan and Robert have made sure all their staff are well trained in milk quality standards. For this they enlisted the help of their milk factory which offered one day’s training at a local venue and implemented the remainder of the training on their farm through a workplace visit. Recently, one of their staff, Wendy, was promoted to herd feed manager by Robert, and was sent to TAFE to learn about the latest in dairy cow ration formulation, as well as upskilling her knowledge of dairy cow nutrition.

Trap title goes here

Another very important question to ask is “at what level are the skills to be learned?” If the knowledge and skills developed by the training are relatively simple, then they may be acquired by a single, short, training session. The acquisition of more extensive and complex knowledge and skills might require a number of training stages with the knowledge and skills components being broken down into smaller portions to facilitate learning.

Back to top

Evaluating the training

An evaluation needs to occur after any training to determine if the training program achieved the required results and if the time and budget were well spent or could have been used more effectively elsewhere.

The questions that need to be asked are:

Reaction to the training

  • Was the training delivery clear and helpful?
  • Did the learner feel that as a result of the training, their knowledge and/or ability was increased?
  • Was the information presented relevant to the topic/training requirement?
  • Was the time frame appropriate to the expected results?


  • Was there a transfer of knowledge and/or skill from the trainer to learner?
  • Can the learner demonstrate improved or changed performance?

Production of results

  • Are there tangible results in terms of productivity, quality, job performance, for example, that can be measured and observed within a given period of time?

Was the training successful?

Joan and Robert could assess the effectiveness of their training program (see on farm above) by considering the standard of their daily milk quality results and their results, when audited, compared with those previously obtained. Wendy would be able to develop a cost-effective feed ration for the herd to reach its production targets.

Back to top

Make skills development a formal part of the role on-farm

If a culture of innovation and/or change is fostered within the farm business, then individual development is a natural outcome, as when the business changes so must its staff or they will become redundant. A straightforward way of ensuring the planned skill development actually happens is to make it a formal part of the role on farm. Consideration around training and development therefore needs to always be part of the performance appraisal process – so this is an easy way of going about it. Whatever approach is used, put time frames and resources against the training needs and make the planned actions consistent with career planning where possible.

Back to top